Kenyan mountain biker describes the long and winding road to race at Breck Epic
At 8:14 a.m. on Thursday, Patrick Willy took to the start line at the Breck Epic mountain bike race just like any of the other 400-odd riders. But 32-year-old Willy’s path to the event is unlike any other, tracing back to the bicycle races of his youth that took him and other village youngsters across the rugged landscape of Kenya.
In Kenya, mountain biking isn’t exactly a popular sport. Globally, the country is best known for success in track-and-field and distance running. Growing up in the remote 18,000-person village of Ikombe, Willy remembers first falling in love with the sport thanks to a hand-me-down singlespeed bike his uncle gave him when he was 8 years old.
Around the village, the bike was referred to as “Black Mamba.”
“And after I learned, my uncle would send me to market to grab stuff,” Willy recalled.
So Willy would depart the spread-out village of 1,000 mud and grass thatch-roofed homesteads to the market or river, both 10 kilometers away.
At the market, he would pick up essentials like sugar, salt and maize. Then the fun would start. Willy, weighted down with bags full of supplies, would fly along the rural Kenyan roads, keeping ahead of other young cyclists.
Even if there were times his riding led to damaged or lost items from the marketplace — and a reprimand from his uncle — Willy continued to race. And win.
“That’s how I really got into being competitive,” he said.
The eventual jump for Willy from single-speed recreation as a child to international mountain biking competitions came after a lull from cycling. At the time, he was living and working in the urban environment of Kisumu, Kenya, almost 800 kilometers from his native home.
Then after he finished college and entered the workforce, at the age of 27, Willy got back on his bike while working as a salesperson for a Kenyan car tire distribution company.
On that fateful day five years ago, a friend of Willy’s told him he’d be competing in a race 100 kilometers from Kisumu known as “Cycle With the Rhino.” Weaving through a national rhino sanctuary at Lake Nakuru National Park on a borrowed rig was Willy’s first foray into actual mountain biking.
“But I was really shocked,” he said, “because I thought that since I was fit back then as a kid, I would be fit now. But I wasn’t.”
Though he didn’t perform well at his first Cycle With the Rhino, Willy promised himself he’d be back the next year on the three-person podium. That following year, he didn’t podium, but a top-10 showing was enough for him to accelerate his new ambition to continue to try bigger and badder mountain biking events across Africa.
Those included one in South Africa and one at Mount Kenya National Park with its iconic namesake stratovolcano serving as the backdrop. It was all aboard a second-hand bike he saved up $80 to purchase.
Splitting his time between selling tires in the Kenyan capital city of Nairobi during the week and mountain biking on the weekends, Willy’s talent was soon noticed by Alex Tibwitta. In Kenya, Willy estimates just about 100 people are part of the avid mountain biking scene. It’s tiny, but Tibwitta is one of them.
Before returning this year, Tibwitta twice raced in the Breck Epic. Of the Kenyan riders, he urged Willy to test his burgeoning mountain biking skills in a foreign place called Breckenridge.
“I literally knew nothing,” Willy said of Colorado. “But he was telling me this is a good challenge for me.”
Long before Willy could touch down at Denver International Airport, he had to conjure a way to finance his greatest mountain biking escapade yet. So he went back to Ikombe to ask the village elders for help. They thought it’d be a great example for Ikombe’s youth. So they agreed to team with Willy’s family and friends to pay for the half of the trip he wasn’t personally financing with his savings.
Once Willy arrived in Summit County last week, the difference in mountain biking terrain and sheer mountainous beauty shocked him. He described the views as “mind-boggling,” and also described the difficulty of the Breck Epic race as a “nine” on the scale of 1-10. The trails back home in Kenya, comparatively, would be a 6, he said.
Despite the difficulty of his first Breck Epic, Willy concluded Wednesday’s four stages of racing in 11th place of the 25 riders in the Solo Men’s 30+ Category 2/3 division with an overall time of 17:04:00.4.
Riding this week across the seemingly endless backcountry miles and elevation gain in this foreign place, Willy has elected for an official team name of “Desperado.”
Come Friday evening when he finally concludes the beast that is the Breck Epic multi-stage race, this intercontinental racer will be ready to bring his Rocky Mountain adventure home to Kenya.
“I will tell them this place is a spectacular one,” he said.
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